"Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy" is The Guardian's contribution to the narrative of Wikileaks that has emerged in the popular press since the release of "Cablegate" in December 2010. It is written primarily by The Guardian's investigations editor David Leigh and journalist Luke Harding, with a reasoned introduction by editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger. Leigh claims that he and Harding wrote the book in 3 weeks, which makes them officially hacks, with all the breathless hyperbole and looseness with fact that the term implies. But I'm impressed. This is a page-turner and a very readable account of The Guardian's collaboration with Wikileaks and 4 other news agencies on the release of the Afghan and Iraq War Logs and the US State Department cables in 2010.
The authors begin with some background: sympathetic chapters on Pfc. Bradley Manning, who is alleged to have leaked the data from the United States' SIPRNet, Julian Assange, and the evolution of Wikileaks, from the organization's first coup in 2007, when it published a report on Daniel Arap Moi's corruption in Kenya. Then it is to Norway, March 2010, when The Guardian had its first face-to-face contact with Assange. He showed David Leigh the Apache helicopter video that would later be known as "Collateral Murder". There is an exciting account of Nick Davies' meeting with Assange that produced the collaboration between Wikileaks, The Guardian, and, ultimately, other news agencies, leading to the global furor we are still experiencing 4 months after Cablegate.
There is a chapter on the incidents in Sweden that led to Julian Assange being pursued on suspicion of sex crimes, followed by The Guardian's version of the dispute that occurred between the paper and Assange when The Guardian received a second copy of the State Department cables from another source. Those 2 chapters stand out from the rest of the book in their tone and apparent purpose, but more on that later. Finally, there is a dramatic account of the amazing collaboration between The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, El Pais, The New York Times, and Wikileaks, a Herculean effort that the authors undoubtedly will not forget any time soon. I still detect residual adrenaline from the (botched) coordination of the release on 28 November.
Any account of the Wikileaks saga begs the question: Should we accept this version as authoritative? The short answer is: No. "Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange's War on Secrecy" is, first and foremost, a puff piece for The Guardian. Its goal is to cast that organization, its journalists, and its use of material supplied by Wikileaks in the best light possible. The book excels when it conveys the awe and excitement of the journalists in working with such an enormous cache of data in ways they had never before experienced. It's a little sloppy around the edges. There are some factual inaccuracies (e.g. the repeated assertion that Pfc. Manning had access to "top secret" information) and some misquotes, though I didn't find any that changed the meaning of the statement.
The chapters about Sweden and the dispute with Julian Assange over the publication of Cablegate are unique in that they are malicious toward Assange. The rest of the book is not. In fact, it paints a picture of Assange as an eccentric polymath and an astute strategist that is by no means unflattering. I obviously could not say what went on between Assange and The Guardian on the day he allegedly threatened to sue, but the authors omit the existence of a written agreement between them, in the form of a letter, I believe. And they quote extensively from the meeting without, I assume, the benefit of a recording. The purpose of the chapter entitled "Uneasy Partners" is to assert The Guardian's version of disputed events -at the expense of the other party, naturally.
The chapter on Sweden, entitled "The World's Most Famous Man", is sleazier and more complicated. The authors put a spin on events as recounted by the two Swedish complainants that does not exist in their statements to police. They accept the women's statements as gospel but never fail to preface any statement that would favor Assange with "Assange's lawyers claim", when his lawyers are, in fact, simply quoting witness statements from the Swedish police protocol. Ironically, by the authors' own account, the woman known as Miss W told two radically different versions of events to different people, but they don't point that out. They glibly dismiss the idea that the women's statements do not imply that any crime was committed, even under Swedish law.
But objectivity is not the authors' purpose. Their book is a compelling contribution to the Wikileaks narrative, not because it is accurate, but because it is an intriguing -and eminently readable- amalgamation of history, hyperbole, drama, self-promotion, self-defense, sensationalism, and name-calling. If I'm not mistaken, the authors malign Assange over his Swedish exploits in order to posit their own rather patronizing views of women as superior to those of the womanizing Australian. How amusing. Picking this book apart for all of its agendas is a project in itself, and one that I hope some historian will eventually undertake. It is valuable for its engaging glimpse behind-the-scenes at the Cablegate release, in particular, but also for capturing the many competing agendas that have developed around the representation of Wikileaks and Julian Assange in the media.